Another day, another landmark bill signing for California governor

California, which just passed landmark climate change legislation, is known for its sweeping legislation on big issues. But recently, Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature have been outdoing themselves. 

Damian Dovarganes/AP
California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks before signing a bill to combat climate change by increasing the state's renewable electricity use to 50 percent and doubling energy efficiency in existing buildings by 2030 at a ceremony overlooking the Los Angeles skyline at the Griffith Observatory Wednesday.

California Gov. Jerry Brown took the stage at Los Angeles’s fabled Griffith Observatory Wednesday morning to sign what many regard as landmark climate change legislation. The scene was a classic snapshot of California politics.

Once again, the Golden State is taking the legislative lead not only on an issue that might otherwise be considered national or even global, but it is taking an unambiguous stand on an issue of no small controversy. In other words, it's acting boldly on legislation that wouldn't get past the front steps of the Capitol in Washington.  

But even by California's standards, this has been an eventful time. In the past three days, Governor Brown has signed bills mandating gender pay equity, legalizing assisted suicide, and setting up an ambitious data collection program to combat racial profiling in law enforcement. Go back 14 months, and the state has enacted minimum wage legislation and added important strokes to what one expert calls an immigration reform revolution.

With Washington gridlocked on a host of important issues, many states are carving out their own policies on religious freedom or marijuana regulation. But the sheer number of major bills coming through California bespeaks the significant place it has carved out for itself. 

“It’s not surprising that, in a nation state of some 39 million people, California should move ahead of Washington on policies that urgently affect its residents,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “When it comes to public policy, California is America, only faster.”

The climate change bill will require the state to increase reliance on renewable energy sources to 50 percent by the year 2030. California has been a leader on climate change since its Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. "We have the technological means, and now we have the legal mandate to reduce carbon pollution," Brown said in a statement after the legislature approved Wednesday’s bill last month.

The bill is part of a suite of moves the state has made on the issue in recent years. In 2013, for example, California became the first state to sign a formal memorandum of understanding with various Chinese agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. A 2015 study published by the Asia Society notes that “with climate protection legislation still not forthcoming, California is taking a lead at the subnational level and building from a bipartisan legacy of efforts to share its experience and expertise with their counterparts in China.”

In some ways, California's action on illegal immigration is even more dramatic. While the state has long been a leader on environmental regulation, 20 years ago Californians were voting to deny all government services to undocumented immigrants. Today, the state is essentially creating a pathway to "state" citizenship for them.  

In recent years, California has passed laws allowing undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses, to be eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges, to have access to financial aid, and – this year – extending health care to undocumented minors through Medi-Cal and state health exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act.  

The state’s approach to immigration reform has become so comprehensive that Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of the school of Public Policy at the University of California in Riverside, has dubbed it “the California Package.” 

This is a “package” of immigration reform policy that goes far beyond what the federal government has done with respect to immigration reform, he says. “California is far ahead of other states,” adding that “no other state has done what California has done.” 

Congressional gridlock is driving this aggressive lawmaking, he says. “California is done waiting in vain for action on immigration from the federal government.” 

But the legislative sailing has not always been smooth, even in California. Wednesday's bill originally included a provision to cut petroleum use in the state in half. This was strongly opposed by the oil lobby and ultimately, lawmakers dropped it. Unfazed, Brown noted, “I'd say oil has won the skirmish, but they've lost the bigger battle.”

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